Seriously. The dickish behavior of Peter Capaldi's Doctor has officially become the show's main story engine. The plot of tonight's Doctor Who is greatly complicated by the Doctor's obnoxiousness, and it would be a really short episode if David Tennant had shown up instead. Spoilers ahead...
So a few weeks ago, the Doctor got bored and decided to take the safeties off the TARDIS, and wound up turning a random childhood nightmare into a defining moment for young Danny Pink. And last week, he decided to endanger a whole school full of people, just to trap a monster that was on Earth due to the Doctor's own meddling.
And then in tonight's "Kill the Moon," the Doctor first sets off young Courtney Woods by taking her into space and then telling her that she's nobody special, and then drags her to the Moon, at one of the most dangerous times in lunar history. (This is the other one.) And then, when the Doctor discovers the truth about what's happening on the Moon, he only tells the humans enough to freak them out — but not enough to reassure them. He then judges them for being freaked out.
That's the thing about "Kill the Moon": The humans in this story only know what the Doctor tells them. And he chooses to give them an incomplete picture of the situation, one which leads the humans to take drastic actions. It's almost as if the Doctor wants to be able to judge us for our destructiveness and rash stupidity.
Which is too bad, because the basic plot of "Kill the Moon" is actually a cool thought experiment: the Moon has been increasing in mass, causing havoc on Earth. (We're never told how many people have died, but presumably a lot.) And there are spidery parasite thingies, which turn out to be oversized bacteria. It turns out that the Moon is actually an egg, that's been gestating for a hundred million years, and now it's ready to hatch. In an hour or so.
So should the Doctor, Clara, Courtney and Captain Lundvik allow the ginormous creature to hatch? Or should they use the 100 nuclear bombs that Lundvik brought to the Moon to kill it? The Doctor, who's usually keen to answer everything, refuses to give his opinion, saying that humans need to make this decision on our own. The Doctor actually leaves, so they can make the decision without him. Lundvik wants to kill the creature — and after Clara asks the entire human race in 2049 to "vote" by turning their lights on or off, the entire human race agrees with Lundvik. (Or the people in control of the electrical grid do.)
But it's pretty obvious the Doctor knows all along that the creature is no threat. Especially afterwards — when Clara aborts the nuclear explosion and the Doctor rescues them, he tells Lundvik that nobody's going to die... before he's actually seen what happens next. And he tells Clara afterwards that eggs normally don't destroy their nest. (He never mentions that he visited the Moon 21 years after this story takes place, and it's still there then.)
The story would be a lot stronger if Lundvik figures out the truth about the creature on her own, and then jumps to conclusions — as it is, the Doctor is the one who makes all the discoveries and spoon-feeds information to the humans. (I can't help wondering if this was originally a story written without the Doctor, given that writer Peter Harness is an award-winning playwright and scriptwriter, who's written a lot of radio plays. You could easily see this episode being a radio play that doesn't include any meddling Time Lord.)
As it is, this story plays very much like the flipside of "Waters of Mars" — in both episodes, the Doctor shows up on another celestial body in our solar system at a crucial moment in human history. And in both stories, he saves a brave female captain from death. Like "Waters," this is a story that involves a fixed point in history, but in "Waters" it's one that must never be changed — whereas here, it's one whose outcome is unknown even to the Doctor.
But in "Waters," it's the Doctor's willingness to meddle in human history that's the problem — here, he's not willing to meddle past a certain point.
Whenever you watch a Doctor Who story, it's always good to ask what would have happened if the Doctor hadn't shown up — that's presumably the "original" timeline, and the timeline after the Doctor's arrival is the revised version. I'm guessing that in this case, if the Doctor hadn't shown up, Captain Lundvik would have died along with her crew, and the human race would have been left powerless to stop the lunar "bug" hatching. (Again, the Doctor probably knows this, but doesn't say.)
Threaded throughout this story is another really terrific idea — that in 2049, the human race has stopped going into space, because we decided there was no point. Some Mexicans went to the Moon in 2039 to set up a mining enterprise, but when they died mysteriously, humans gave up on space exploration.
The neat twist on this is that what restores humanity's interest in space travel isn't being reminded of our can-do spirit, our ingenuity and so on — but having our sense of wonder recharged by seeing the beautiful creature emerge from the Moon, and not killing it. So presumably, if the human race got its way and killed the lunar creature, we'd have turned back to our inward-looking ways, with our fear of the unknown reaffirmed. That's a really cool spin on the "humans gave up on space travel" thing, and one I wish this story had done more with.
The dilemma of whether to kill the creature hatching from the Moon is an interesting one — but so is the question of how far the Doctor should meddle in human affairs. At this point, though, it's a little late to be asking those sorts of questions. The Doctor has already "put a lot of work into this planet," as he put it in another story. He's saved humans from monsters, but also from ourselves, countless times. (A number of Doctor Who stories involve a human mad scientist doing something mad, and the Doctor intervening.)
So can the Doctor, having intervened countless times in human history, really decide to step back and abdicate? It's an interesting idea, but one that can probably never stick given the show's format.
In the end of the episode, Clara gives the Doctor a message from the human race: "Clear off." If he's going to stand apart and judge humans and act like he's above us, then he should just leave us alone. And I guess, he should either be helpful all the time, or not try to help at all. (And then in next week's episode, flesh-eating monsters descend on the Earth and the Doctor doesn't show up, because he took Clara's message to hearts.)
Can Clara really speak for the human race, here? (She could try taking another "lights on or off" straw poll from humanity, and then ignore the results a second time, I guess.) Does her injunction for the Doctor to stay away cover all of human history, or just the brief time when she's alive?
In any case, the episode ends with Clara having a heart-to-heart with Danny Pink, who concludes that this is the time he warned her about last week: the time when the Doctor would finally push her too far. (Although this wasn't a matter of pushing her to do anything dangerous, or indeed ordering her to do anything — he was forcing her to decide things for herself.) Clara says she's done with the Doctor, but Danny insists you're never done with anybody as long as they can still make you angry.
One thing you can't accuse Doctor Who of doing, this year, is playing it safe — the writers this year, including newcomers like Harness, seem to be doing their best to push the show's format to its limits and overturn our settled ideas of what a Doctor Who story should be about. The only trouble with that is that the Doctor, as active participant, is baked into the format — nobody's ready to go back to stories where the Doctor is a passive observer, or just wants to get back to his TARDIS.
All in all, "Kill the Moon" is a neat idea for a story (despite some scientific plausibility issues) — but I'm not entirely convinced it works as a Doctor Who story. In fact, it might be a better story without the Doctor in it. As it is, in the context of this season, it seems to be another big step in the direction of turning the Doctor into an anti-hero and examining just how evil the Doctor can become, before he stops seeming like a hero. We're still delving into the question he asked at the beginning of the season: "Am I a good man?" Also continued this week: the theme of the Doctor condemning the human tendency towards paranoia and violence, as exemplified by soldiers.
For now, the result is a more "alien," callous Doctor, reminiscent of Hartnell but also Pertwee and Tom Baker. But I'm more curious than ever to see where this is going.